It was an age, an era no one wants to remember yet no one wants to forget. Borrowing from J.M. Coetzee, the South African Nobel Prize- winning novelist, let me call it the “Age of Iron,” after one of his novels. It was a terrible age, a nightmare for journalists and journalism.
It was the age when the dark goggles-wearing General Sani Abacha, the real Nigerian nightmare held sway, plunging Nigeria into darkness and terror. And freedom took flight, replaced by fear, death squads, killings and long-term imprisonments that sent many journalists on exile and underground in what was called “Guerilla Journalism.”
The poet, Obari Gomba captured it in a poem he wrote for Kunle Ajibade and all the journalists of that dark era. The poem opens: “For all you have suffered and for all we have suffered.” And to the likes of Abacha and his military goons who held Nigeria hostage under the barrel of the gun, he writes:
“They thought they were deities of iron
But they were human after all
They were human after all
They decreed that there should be no end
To the maladies of power
They built prisons for all of us
They numbered us for prisons and gallows
We walked between the walls of death
We wrestled with fear; we wrestled with despair:
Every second, every minute and every hour.”
The poem was read on Wednesday at the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs where Kunle Ajibade, the journalist and man of literature was marking his 60th birthday with a colloquium that brought together under one roof giants like Prof. Wole Soyinka, Aremo Segun Osoba, Sam Amuka, Odia Ofeimun, Prof. Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu, Erelu Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, Ayisha Osori, Owei Lakemfa, Ayo Obe, Femi Falana (SAN), Omoba Yemisi Shyllon, Idowu Obasa, Lai Babatunde (SAN), Senator Babafemi Ojudu and the Governor of Osun State Rauf Aregbesola. And many more.
It was time for reminiscences. People walking down memory lane to exhume the bones of nightmares long buried in the graveyards of the past. One of such unforgettable nightmares was in 1995 when the military government of Gen. Abacha arrested many prominent Nigerians for participating in a fake coup and put them on trial. Among them was Olusegun Obasanjo, the former head of state and Shehu Musa Yar’Adua, his deputy. For a story published by TheNews, one of the hottest magazines of the era titled: “Not Guilty—Army Panel Clears Coup Suspects,” Kunle Ajibade, Executive Editor of the magazine was given life-in-prison sentence. Even though he wasn’t the writer of the story, he still bit the bullet gallantly and went to prison without betraying any of his colleagues. While in incarceration, Ajibade’s pregnant wife gave birth to a baby boy. And as the editor of the Weekend Concord, the hottest tabloid of the era, I put the story on front page with the picture of the new baby and a screaming headline: “COUP BABY!”
For 22 years now, I had been longing to see the “Coup Baby”. Each time I met or talked on phone with Kunle Ajibade who had come out of jail, after Abacha’s death, I would ask him about the coup baby and he would tell me, amidst smiles, that “he is doing fine.” At Kunle’s 60th birthday colloquium, I finally met the coup baby Folarin Ajibade who was also eager to meet me. Face to face with Folarin, the past came unfolding and rewinding like a clock. I remembered the years of our youth when we introduced Weekend Concord into the Nigerian newspaper market, a different paper merging literature with populist journalism where ordinary people became heroes and were put on front page. In our days in Weekend Concord, a man like Mamoudou Gassama, the “Malian Spider-man” who risked his life to save a boy dangling from a four-storey building in Paris, would have dominated our front page. We would have given that story the Weekend Concord treatment—reporting it from all perspectives and dimensions. Each time I watch the video of Gassama leaping from one balcony to another until he finally grabs the baby, my heart goes up there with him. He reminds me of the parable of the Good Samaritan redux—the parable reenacted with a modern twist. While others were just there watching, screaming and hooting their car horns, it took a poor courageous Malian immigrant and an outcast of sort, who came illegally to Paris via the inclement Sahara desert, passing the dreaded Libya and crossing the dangerous mighty Atlantic Ocean to do what Jesus would have done in a similar situation. Mamoudou Gassama was the Jesus to a little boy on death row, an innocent on a suicide mission, abandoned by his parents in a horrifying “Home Alone” movie.
The Weekend Concord success story had the imprint of writers like Kunle Ajibade, Sam Omatseye and Bayo Onanuga who were regular contributors from African Concord magazine where they volunteered their literary skills to make the paper the trailblazing newspaper of that era. But the newspaper plunged with no one to save it like brave Mamoudou Gassama saved the poor boy of Paris. In future this boy would forever owe a debt of gratitude to an African Samaritan who risked his life to save a helpless boy whose life dangerously hung in a balance with time ticking fast. Just imagine if that boy had fallen down from that height. The horror of him dropping and crashing down would have been difficult to even televise!
Ever since I put on Twitter and Facebook, my encounter and a picture of me with the Coup Baby Folarin Ajibade, I have been receiving an avalanche of likes and retweets on Twitter and Facebook, showing that it is a great story—as big as the story of the rescued French boy. The good news is that 22 years after, Folarin is a giant carrying his father’s literary genes. He has his first degree in Economics from the University of Wisconsin. He is now doing a PhD in History at New York University. How I wish I could carry him in my arms and rock him like the little Coup Baby of 1995 wrapped and covering the whole front page of Weekend Concord, my newspaper baby now dead, filling me with laments and nostalgia. Bitter and sweet!
In the smiles of Kunle Ajibade, I could see the pride and joy of a father telling me: “My son is doing a PhD in History at New York University.” Don’t we all pray for our children to be bigger and greater than us? So shall it be, in Jesus Mighty name. The Jesus who was saved as a “coup baby” and rushed to Egypt, when Herod, the biblical Abacha, wanted the head of babies in order to perpetuate himself in office.